May 22, 2018

Bookstore or College Store: Building a Relationship | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellCollege bookstores are evolving for a future that is based less on textbooks and more on supporting the course material ecosystem, campus services, and merchandise. When it comes to textbook issues, academic librarians and the campus bookstore should work together to give students affordable solutions.

As an OER (open educational resources) and open textbook advocate I may have given the impression at times in the past that college bookstores are part of the textbook problem. I believe that academic librarians should work together to offer faculty and students affordable learning content solutions. What about the college bookstore? Is it the source of the problem or a partner in finding the solution? When I attended the Open Textbook Network Institute this past summer I heard one piece of smart, useful advice multiple times: don’t demonize. Advancing the cause of OER and open textbooks does not require academic librarians to portray or position faculty, publishers, politicians, or bookstores as the problem. We are all part of the digital learning content ecosystem. To improve the system we should seek to explore options to engage with partners who can help us advance on the desired path.

Where’s the Book in Bookstore

You know how it bugs librarians when we see, again and again, articles that claim libraries are obsolete because everything is on the Internet? Bookstore managers and employees must feel the same way when they read articles predicting the demise of the college bookstore. Whether it’s owing to students going straight to Amazon, buying used versions off discount websites, or opting out of purchasing textbooks entirely, the data and trends point to a changing landscape for the campus bookstore. In her article “University Bookstores Change with the Times,” Rosanna Tamburri writes that there “has been a steady erosion of sales at campus bookstores across the country.” The college textbook offers an unsustainable future as the primary merchandise and revenue source for the campus bookstore. Just as our academics libraries are transforming to be about more than books and content, the bookstore is transitioning to become the “college store.” Tamburri states “a boost in sales of giftware, clothing, convenience items, and trade books has largely offset a drop in sales of textbooks and course materials.”

But the Bookstores Won’t Like it

Anyone who has walked into a college bookstore in the recent past knows that product diversification is under way. Other than a display of a few best sellers at the front of the store, there are lots of branded hoodies and backpacks to navigate before getting to the textbook shelves. We’d all be doing ourselves a favor if we moved beyond textbooks as a container for course content. The textbook is an anachronism that inadequately serves the learning needs of our 21st-century students. We should instead focus on how to deliver the right mix of content that comes from open textbooks, OER, other open sources (e.g., government documents), and, yes, licensed library content that best contributes to learning. One barrier on some campuses is the absence of a relationship between the library and the bookstore. I’ve heard this raised at almost every OER program I’ve attended. “Our bookstore won’t allow it.” “It’s in the agreement—no open textbooks allowed on this campus.” It sounds odd and not quite right. Have these librarians engaged in a conversation with their bookstore manager?

Find Some Common Ground

If academic librarians are worried about how their bookstore management will react to a plan to raise more awareness about OER, there’s only one way to find out. When librarians begin a conversation with the bookstore about a plan to encourage faculty to shift from commercial textbooks to OER it can often lead to an understanding about a shared interest in helping students with affordability. That has been my experience, and I have heard the same from many LibOER colleagues. My campus bookstore manager is a cooperative and supportive partner when I’ve asked for assistance with projects. I’ve asked for guidance gathering textbook prices for courses in our top five majors. For another project I requested and received data for a search tool to allow students to see if their textbooks are available in the library’s ebook collections. On my campus the library has actively worked for the past five years to incentivize faculty to adopt textbook alternatives. Yet the bookstore continues to thrive. So surely an OER initiative and a campus bookstore can coexist.

The Future is More Students

Bookstore managers are aware that their future is about more than textbooks. They know that an effort led by librarians to promote OER is unlikely to eliminate all commercial textbook purchasing anytime soon. The real threat to book sales is not OER but Internet competitors. Of greater concern is faculty who increasingly neglect to report required texts to the bookstore. Many faculty now assume their students simply go online to purchase or rent books. This impedes the bookstore’s capacity to prepare for the next semester’s demand and is ultimately problematic for students. In the face of all this change, what can academic librarians and bookstore leaders, in partnership with faculty, do to promote learning and student retention? As one bookstore manager wrote in response to a discussion on the LibOER list, if we can all work together to help students save money and stay in college, in the long run they spend money at the college store.

Textbooks Up, Student Spending Down

Earlier this year the media reported that a textbook crossed the $400 mark, and that did cause some outrage. It dramatically signaled that commercial textbooks continue to increase in price. In spite of that, and perhaps because of it, actual student spending for textbooks has decreased. The often-used figure of $1,200 per academic year is now less than $700. Lower rental and used book prices have contributed, but in addition to the high-cost barrier, students report they skip spending on books when they believe they can succeed without them. No doubt faculty use of OER, especially open textbooks, is having an impact. Those indicators might suggest the college store no longer needs to depend on books. But that’s not how Rich Hershman, vice president of government relations for the National Association of College Stores (NACS), views it.

We Are Not Adversaries

In a message to me Hershman wrote that despite what authors like Tamburri might write, “College stores are staying involved as the facilitator of course materials distribution.” That point is reinforced by Brian Cartier, CEO of NACS, in his article “Don’t Judge a College Bookstore by Its Cover” in which he debunks multiple myths about the demise of the college bookstore. Hershman reminded me that one of the big myths is that the goals of librarians seeking to advance OER are somehow incompatible with the academic mission of college bookstores. He stated that “a significant amount of very positive library and bookstore collaboration is now occurring across the country today both in supporting OER and commercial content considerations.” I could probably predict the future of the college bookstore about as well as I could that of the academic library. As always, the future will be what we make it. When it comes to making higher education affordable for students, and looking for ways to make learning content open and accessible, a future guided by a collaborative relationship between academic libraries and college bookstores—no matter how radically either transforms—is in students’ best interests.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.



  1. A future with OER also includes pre-printed books sold at the bookstores. Either in a coursepack or as a stand-alone textbook. The fact is that students want to study from print, and most prefer it when there is an affordable pre-printed option available. The “How” the OER’s are used is glossed over the discussion right now as the focus is on the availability & suitability of titles for a particular subject. There are many ways to use and distribute the pdf. Bookstores will be one of them as OER acceptance grows.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Matt and providing an additional perspective on how the campus bookstore can support OER – by providing printing options for students that prefer print over digital.

      I can tell you that with our alternate textbook project, when students have tools that are well adapted for digital reading, note taking etc, they report that they are fine with all digital content over print – which they are relieved to not have to carry around, bring to class, always have the digital with them, etc.

  2. While I appreciate the advice, there is one piece missing in this discussion. Not all college bookstores are owned and run by the college. Too many institutions have out-sourced their bookstores to commercial entities that have demonstrated little interest in partnerships unless it is for the library to purchase more materials through them. I think if one is working with a campus-owned and campus-staffed bookstore, then partnerships may be quite possible, but the corporate model for outsourced bookstores is not necessarily one that lends itself to this type of scenario. I am not trying to “demonize”, it is more based on our experiences.

    • Thanks for your comment Terri. I don’t disagree that there’s the potential for collaboration challenges in the outsourced model.

      I will only say that my own campus does outsource to B&N and it has not been a barrier to collaboration and conversations about textbook issues. The difference might be having a cooperative and enlightened bookstore manager.

  3. RussConwell says:

    Great article and good point about the fact that some schools have outsourced the bookstore component. This begs the question, why should the library not think a bit more corporate while still maintaining the mission of serving the patrons and providing a service. It’s OK to be a profit center as well. I will stay away from this topic but we all know that ‘non-profits’ are a starting point and a culture rather than a sustainable business solution, right? So why not use technology within the library to keep the books coming from the library? This would allow for all kinds of positive outcomes. Librarians could take on the business connecting the student with the book or the course pack or the required reading, etc. The technology available today allows the library to handle this. Next gen ILS with reading list software and sophisticated discovery tools could allow the library to provide all of these services. If the schools would require the books and merchandise to all run through the library, they could actually be the center of all learning materials which the last time I checked was the way it was supposed to be. Books are the business of the library. It’s time for someone to step up and make it this way again. If the collective ‘we’ does not disrupt the current model and change like this does not happen then none of this discussion will matter and either will this site or any of the fancy committees we are on.